The image above shows the view from the desk I have been using during my stays in Sofia, Bulgaria over the last seventeen years. For nearly two decades, the view has barely changed. The building on the far left received a coat of yellow paint some years ago, a window was cut into the roof of the building at the foreground and a birch tree that stood to the building’s left was felled during a storm. However, the sensation I experience each time I glance out the window has remained constant — a feeling of floating above the city encased in a my own private bubble.
Even banal views belie tales of change. The above panorama of sky, roof tiles, distant trees, and the upper floors of Bauhaus-influenced facades may have remained fixed but life on the streets three stories below has gone through upheavals. Competing political regimes and severe economic crisis have come and gone, Sofia’s population has increased 2.5x, a new generation of Sofia residents has been born and grown to near-adulthood, and the bulk of the economic and social lives of the city have moved out of the center to new areas at the urban periphery.
Seventy years ago, some of the rooftops in this very view were aflame during wartime aerial bombardments of Sofia. (Bulgaria, not to forget, was an enthusiastic ally of Nazi Germany and was fire-bombed by the British and Americans in reprisal, a matter cynically relegated to amnesia during both the Soviet- and post-Soviet eras).
During the years that the view above has been mine to enjoy, the building in the foreground has gone through several incarnations, all reflective of changes in the city at large. Soon after the denouement of the Communist period, during a time of unregulated gangster-capitalism, the building housed the offices of Bulgaria’s first GSM mobile telecommunications provider, initially owned by a succession of Russian and Israeli investors backed by dubious sources of capital. Not long after, during a period of foreign largesse and a cargo-cult of NGO boondoggles, the building housed the Bulgarian representation of the United Nations Development Program. Thereafter, the building remained vacant for some years until, this past month, it was refurbished to house private law offices.
Just as the view from my desk in Sofia points to stories of external changes, it also reveals changes in the viewer. Over the years that I have used the desk, I’ve been in and out of Sofia as a mid-life Fulbright research scholar and photographer, a convalescent and physical therapy patient following a severe accident, a field worker for a US government project documenting aspects of the cultural heritage of ethnic and religious minorities, and a consultant to various companies and institutions in Western and Central Europe. These last few months, I’ve been in Sofia for time-consuming dental work, itself a revealing tale of sugar-laden, post-war American diet, prohibitively priced US dentistry, inadequate Western and Eastern European dentistry in the 1970s and 80s, past accidents, and poor luck at the roulette table of genetics. I hope to be able to leave Sofia by mid-month — when I do, the memory of the view from my desk will travel with me.